Real Salt Lake played Portland Wednesday night in front of 14,742 pumped-up fans at Rio Tinto Stadium, with Portland's rowdy road contingent making almost as much noise as the RSL faithful. Jason Kreis has always put an emphasis on the Open Cup, especially as a way forward to the Champion's League, but mostly because he's just a massive competitor.
The game had the feel of a playoff, and both teams put out one of the more enjoyable matches to watch this season. RSL came out on top with one Alvaro Sabrio goal and another from Joao Plata, versus one Diego Valeri goal for Portland. RSL will play in the Open Cup final Oct. 1 against DC United, which beat Chicago Wednesday night, 2-0.
Here is a tactical analysis of each position group:
Change back: Nick Rimando came back to RSL last Saturday after leading the U.S. Men's National Team to a Gold Cup win in one of the most dominant performances in U.S. Men's soccer history.
Nick Rimando had a save of the week in the 40th minute when former teammate Will Johnson went tête–à–tête almost point blank and Rimando parried away Johnson's low power shot to keep the sheet clean — for the moment. Rimando's only miss was with a Diego Valeri header he pinged past him in the final minutes of the game while Rimando was recovering from a save he made as Valeri challenged him 1-1 only nano-seconds earlier.
Tactics: RSL has played eight different combinations at center back this season. Any team in Major League Soccer would be hard pressed to find enough quality backs to do the same. Most of them are in their first year with RSL, and Wednesday night's starter beside Nat Borchers is in his rookie season. Carlos Salcedo returned to the right center back position Wednesday after recovering from gall bladder surgery. Tony Beltran returned after red card suspension and national team duty to his traditional right back position, and Chris Wingert, who has been one of the stalwarts for RSL this season, played at left back.
Chris Wingert is one of the unsung heroes of RSL's 2013 superb run so far. He's never been the fastest or flashiest defender, but Wingert is dependable and consistent, two things, that if you asked Nick Rimando, are the most important qualities you can find in a defender. Especially one of Wingert's skill with defensive positioning and plain old heart.
Nat Borchers was part of the play that allowed Portland its one and only goal. Portland's Diego Valeri charged the box on a very good Portland cross, and Borchers was with him step for step, Valeri tipped the ball off Borchers' head with his, and as luck would have it, the ball fell right at Valeri's feet, where he was able to get a shot off on Nick Rimando point blank. Rimando parried away the shot, but his rebound again fell perfectly for Portland, on Valeri's head, where he had no trouble plinking it past a recovering Rimando. Aside from that, Borchers' game was confident and his presence reassuring against a Portland team that was clearly anxious to get off shots, with six making their way to goal, and only one going in.
Carlos Salcedo has been on the disabled list for RSL's last three games due to gall bladder surgery but has looked fit during recent training sessions. Kreis started him beside Nat Borchers Wednesday night, and Salcedo wasted no time establishing himself with physical play and smart positioning beyond his young age. He introduced himself to former RSL standout Will Johnson, who now plays for the Timbers, with a strong tackle in the box midway through the first half.
Tony Beltran was RSL's fourth player to return from national duty last week. Wednesday was his first game for RSL after sitting out the Colorado match last Saturday due to a red card in his last league game with Real. Beltran's defensive acuity has been sorely missed at RSL during the month of July. Beltran is known as one of the league's top one-on-one defenders, and RSL relies heavily on that, but it's his offensive production that helps open up the attack, and with Ned Grabavoy struggling at center and Portland's strength in the central defense, Beltran's help from the wings was pivotal.
Tactics: Javier Morales sat the opening half of Wednesday night's game due to an adductor strain. Ned Grabavoy filled the attacking midfield position in his place, with Khari Stephenson starting out wide at left mid.
Ned Grabavoy struggled the first half to conduct the offensive attack. It could have been that it was an unfamiliar role or most likely it was Portland's strength and size at central back that gave him fits. He was much more comfortable in the second half, especially once Javier Morales replaced him at attacking midfielder and Grabavoy was able to go back to his wide position at a time when his defensive strength was put to good use closing out the game.
Kyle Beckerman came back from U.S. Men's National Team duty in the zone. The 7th minute saw him receive a well-weighted ball from Luis Gil on the wing, where he decked his man, put his head up, picked out an unmarked Alvaro Saborio and sent a 20-yard cross right on the mark where Saborio was able to easily put the ball beyond reach of Donovan Ricketts and into the net for RSL's, and the game's, opening goal.
Luis Gil started Wednesday night with excellent field awareness and a terrific touch on the ball. Gil's game energy can ebb and flow evidently, and Wednesday it was as strong as it's been all season. Both elements combined for Gil being in the right place at the right time to send a perfectly weighted ball wide to Kyle Beckerman and getting in on the assist to Alvaro Saborio that put RSL on the board in the 7th minute. Gil played a key role in RSL's midfield possession game with strong defense and an unyielding attacking mindset.
Khari Stephenson is usually known for his offensive strength, but he played a key defensive role Wednesday night. Portland is blessed with an abundance of big athletic players on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, and Stephenson's size and lack of intimidation helped the Claret and Cobalt keep the run of play in the middle of the field. However, when it made its way to the box, Stephenson struggled, leaving Diego Valeri all alone in the 72nd minute, who mercifully headed the ball wide of goal.
Javier Morales (SUB ’79) Khari Stephenson took a seat as Javier Morales, who was questionable to start the game, came on in his place. Ned Grabavoy was sent back out wide, and Morales played excellent defense to close out the game in addition to creating a couple of attacking opportunities.
Yordany Alvarez (SUB ’88) Jason Kreis used his final sub in the 88th minute to use up a little time and to shore up the defense in the final minutes.
Tactics: Some RSL fans have wondered why the explosive Olmes Garcia continues to be left off Jason Kreis' starting 11 in place of Robbie Findley. Findley has speed and skill. So does Garcia. Findley has scored goals. Garcia has scored more. Findley has experience, and with experience comes patience and pacing, especially important to open a game. This is an area where Garcia still needs work. Besides, he adds a tremendous spark off the bench, especially at home, after opposing teams have been worn down and oxygen at altitude is hard to come by. In the end, it was Joao Plata, who replaced Robbie Findley in the 61st minute and who has been very good in his own right with six assists and one goal, make that two goals after giving RSL the go-ahead score in Wednesday night's Open Cup semi-final win.
Robbie Findley has been solid this season, with five goals and two assists, but for some reason he just hasn't found a comfortable rhythm after 16 games since coming back from England. Wednesday night was no different. He showed tremendous spurts of speed, great skill on the ball and great patience, but he lacked the killer instinct RSL fans remember him by from his 2010 stint with the club. He was subbed out in the 61st minute for Joao Plata.
Alvaro Saborio was another player who came back from national team duty on fire. In last week's draw with Colorado, he scored a goal, and he wasted no time scoring off a seventh-minute beauty of a cross from Kyle Beckerman, who served him a perfect cross that Saborio had no problem heading out of reach of Portland keeper Donovan Ricketts.
Joao Plata (SUB ’61) had an immediate impact on the game Wednesday night, using his speed and bias to goal as weapons to put Portland on its heels for the first 10 minutes of play. RSL seemed content to bunker in the final 20 minutes, until in the 78th minute when Plata found himself the recipient of a nice knock-down assist from Alvaro Saborio at the top of the 18-yard box and sent a terrific bending shot just past Donovan Rickets to find the inside side netting to put RSL up 2-0.